Re: RARA-AVIS: Sinister Noir

Date: 17 May 2004


Re your comments below:

> Same question, Jim. And Mario already provided some
> good examples:
> <<Many of Goodis's stories
> are not dark and sinister; rather, they merely
> relate
> hopeless situations involving losers. Likewise,
> Charles
> Williams's _The Hot Spot_ (one of the greatest noir
> novels)
> is neither dark nor sinister. It is a tale of
> compulsion
> and human weakness that leads to violence and ruin.
> LIkewise, Willeford's _The Woman Chaser_ is neither
> dark
> nor sinister. It is a tale of a barely half-grown
> man's
> hysteria and its consequences.>>

I haven't read all of Goodis, THE HOT SPOT, or THE WOMAN CHASER, but what I have read of Goodis, Williams, and Willeford fits my definition of noir as I've defined it.

I wasn't excluding them or ignoring them. I just wasn't commenting on stories I was unfamiliar with.
> Also, "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" jumps to
> mind. How about "Pick-Up"?
> Whittington's brilliant "The Devil Wears Wings"?
> Much of Charles Williams's
> work? Bottom line, 'sinister' is a term I'd
> associate more with Gothic or
> the modern psychological thriller than noir. You
> said you'd looked for
> common traits, Jim. And you came up with 'dark' and
> 'sinister'. Well, that's
> fine, and representative of what you've read. Why
> not ask around and see
> what everybody else thinks? That way we'll get a
> more comprehensive picture.
> You see, "Babe, Pig In The City" is incredibly dark
> and sinister with crimes
> aplenty, but it all turns out fine in the end, so it
> ain't noir (in my
> opinion).

Turning out fine in the end isn't what makes or breaks noir. Of course things, in ANY crime story things won't turn out right for everyone, not even in the most benign Agatha Christie story.

Haven't seen BABE - PIG IN THE CITY, but isn't it in color? Can't be noir (see the "all film noir must be B&W" rule).

Seriously, though, ;ots of noir fiction ends badly. But lots doesn't. And I'm not the one classifying those books and films as noir. They were classified before I came along.

Atmospherics that I have described as "dark and sinister" strike me as the only common elements in the vast array of crime fiction commonly (by others, not by me) described as noir, so that's why I've called them the defining elements.

> So, in the spirit of research... If I had only one
> word to describe noir,
> I'd opt for bleak. A definition of noir that doesn't
> include 'bleak' is
> always going to leave me unsatisfied, since it's
> surely one of its most
> common characteristics. I don't think too many
> people find noir terribly
> uplifting. I've certainly never read a feel-good
> noir.

Does "bleak," as you're using it mean mean that it has to end badly? That it can't have a "feel-good" ending?

If so, consider FAREWELL, MY LOVELY. At the end of the book, reform seems to have taken hold (perhaps temporarily, but time will tell) in Bay City. Laird Brunette can't run his rackets with the same level of impunity. The murders have ben solved. Red, the honest cop, has got his job back. Marlowe wind up in the arms of the scrumptious Anne Riordan.

Now you may not consider Chandler noir. Fine. But I'M not the one who classified him as noir. FAREWELL, MY LOVELY was one of the first of Duhamel's SERIE NOIR offerings. The film version, MURDER, MY SWEET, is routinely listed as one of the seminal, definitive film noirs.

So there IS noir (perhaps not as you define, but as it's commonly used) that leaves people feeling good, or at least satisfied. There IS noir (perhaps not as you define it, but as it's commonly used) that leaves the hero in a moment of triumph rather than defeat. There IS noir (perhaps not as you define, but as it's commonly used) that finishes on an upbeat note.

And, at the risk of repeating myself, I'm not the one who placed Chandler in the class of authors described as "noir." Others did that long before I was ever born. I just tried to see what it was that writers as disparate as Chandler, and Goodis, and Williams, and Willeford, could have in common. I found a very rough similarity in some of the atmospherics. I described the atmospherics as "dark and sinister."

You may disagree that Chandler should be classified with the other writers, but again, I wasn't the one who classified him. I was attempting to define a form into which he'd already been classified.

You may not agree that atmospherics ate the common element. Fine. Then find another another common element, but, if "bleak" requires a hopeless, downbeat ending, then "bleak" is not it, because not all the stories commonly classified as "noir" end that way.

Assuming you agree that atmospherics ARE the common element, you may not find "dark and sinister" an adequate description. Fine. Offer another one.

But don't blame me if "noir" is applied more generally than you think it should be. The guy who coined the term did that, not me.


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